The latest turn of events in the Gulf war poses a dilemma for the moderate Arab world: Either they support Iraq and risk Iranian wrath or they remain aloof and risk an Iranian-style revolution at home.
Once powerful and radical, now increasingly desperate, Iraq is beseeching other Arab countries (except for Syria, Libya, Algeria, and South Yemen, which either back Iran or remain conspicuously neutral) to come to its aid against a resurgent Iran.
In the third week of a sustained offensive aimed at driving Iraqis from land seized 20 months ago, Iranian troops appear to have closed in on the Iraqi-held port city of Khorramshahr in south western Iran. Tehran radio claimed May 24 that Iranian soldiers had recaptured the city. Khorramshahr is considered the key to the Shatt al Arab waterway, which Iraq has been seeking to control since it invaded Iran in September 1980.
Iraqi counterclaims, usually swift in coming, have been muted, which indicated there may have been truth to what Iran was saying.
If Tehran was right, an estimated 30,000 Iraqi troops were overcome by the Iranians after their commander was killed. The loss of so many soldiers and of Khorramshahr, which was Baghdad's major acquisition in the war, would be a stunning blow to Iraq and could lead to a rout of the rest of Iraqi troops from Iranian soil.
Though accounts of the fighting come only from Baghdad and Tehran and are notoriously unreliable, a balancing of the reports from both sides, monitored here, paint a picture of Iran maintaining initiative on the battlefield and Iraq casting about for ways to bolster its weakening security.
Iraqi strong man Saddam Hussein's most recent public statements indicated he was highly concerned by the situation. On May 23, he called on Arab states to abide by the joint Arab defense charter and come to Iraq's aid. And in an interview published May 24 in the Kuwaiti daily al-Siyassah Mr. Hussein said he would welcome Egyptian troops to Baghdad if Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak chose to send them.
But the conservative and relatively weak Arab states along the western shore of the Gulf are not likely to send soldiers to Iraq. Since the opening weeks of the war, these Arab countries had supplied Iraq with financial, material, and moral support - but all this had been done carefully and at great risk, given Iran's threats of striking across the Gulf in retaliation. Kuwait has come under air attack from Iran several times since the war's onset and has been singled out by Tehran with warnings it ''would suffer damage because of its hostility with Iran and with the great Islamic revolution.''
But Egypt might aid Iraq militarily, especially if Iranian soldiers cross the border into Iraq. President Mubarak and his aides have frequently denied that Egyptian soldiers are fighting in Iraq or are about to be sent. But Mr. Mubarak's public statements have been edging closer to a commitment of Egyptian soldiers should the need arise. Already Egypt has stepped up its military aid to Iraq from ammunition and spare parts to battlefield weapons. This past weekend, Mr. Mubarak said Egypt would aid Iraq ''in any way possible'' in the event it is attacked by Iran.
But it is hardly likely Egyptian soldiers will be able to hold the line against Iran if Khorramshahr has fallen. At most, they would be used to shore up the Iraqi home defense.
For Saddam Hussein, the military reverses since early this year - and now possibly his greatest defeat May 24 - are likely to cost him dearly.
Though Western diplomats in Baghdad have contended (up to one month ago, at least) that Mr. Hussein remains popular with Iraqis, his Revolutionary Command Council may not tolerate his continued leadership in the face of these mounting losses. And if the Iraqi government ever intends to negotiate a cease-fire with Iran, Iran has now made Mr. Hussein's overthrow a precondition.
Though mediation efforts are stalled, Iran's push to reestablish its original border could, ironically, be moving the antagonists closer to negotiations. Tehran has demanded all along that a complete Iraqi withdrawal is necessary before discussions can begin.
But Iraqis and many other moderate Arabs worry that Iran not only wants to return to the status quo ante but wants to export its revolutionary Islamic ideology throughout the Arab world. Freed from the war with Iraq by an eventual victory, Iran may well turn its attention to support Shiite Islamic insurgents throughout the Arabian peninsula.